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The 27th Toronto International Film Festival

     Being the best by far on earth came crashing down on the Toronto International Film Festival last month: for the hot preview screenings, there were rarely enough seats in the theatres to accommodate the press and industry clamoring to push inside.

     It was frustrating being shut out of key film showings. But unlike some crybaby American critics, I didn't make a public stink about it. "Go back to your own country!" is what a Montreal journalist shouted at Roger Ebert, who'd been fuming aloud, very aloud. Polite Canadians couldn't help but notice that it was mostly VIP press from the USA (there were journalists from around the world) who were registering complaints, and even threatening to boycott this great festival in future years. What worked on Castro and Saddam...

     Speaking of ugly Americans: The Trials of Henry Kissinger, a superb documentary directed by Eugene Jarecki, played, tellingly, this September 11 at Toronto, and with the sobering reminder within that it was on an earlier September 11 in the 1970s when bombs fell on the palace of Chilean president Salvador Allende. That murderous action was backed and blessed by the CIA and Secretary of State Kissinger himself. This movie shows stained Henry dancing over the map doing treacherous things (such as dismantling a Vietnam peace plan) to consolidate his power in Washington. The documentary's most hissable footage: Mayor Rudy sanctimoniously welcoming America's most wanted war criminal to speak to TV cameras before the rubble of Ground Zero.

     More ugliness: The Quiet American, an excellent film version of Graham Greene's prescient 1950s novel indicting the USA/CIA presence in Vietnam, had its official world premiere at Toronto. Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein was noticeably MIA from the screening, though he was at the Fest. As the Phoenix reported earlier, Miramax bought The Quiet American prior to September 11, and since has been distancing itself from Philip Noyce's less-than-jingoistic movie. Will Miramax, which does such things, bury The Quiet American in its vaults for not being sufficiently patriotic? Another theory for Miramax's cold shoulder: Michael Caine, playing a world-weary British journalist in Vietnam, delivers an Oscar-level performance, but Weinstein's plan is to put all energy toward an Academy Award for Daniel Day Lewis in Miramax's upcoming Gangs of New York.

     Toronto's disappointments: Atam Egoyan's Ararat, the fest's Opening Night film, a ponderous, self-conscious mixture of Armenia's tortured history and several torturous psychodrama plots. Too bad, because we'll probably never get another film chronicling the Armenian Holocaust.

     David Cronberg's Spider: a film which only elite film critics could love, an arrid, ascetic exercise in stasis and gloom, with Ralph Fiennes as a hardly speaking, walking dead man, a shizophrenic zombie from tragedies in his childhood. Check out Patrick McGrath's novel instead, because we are privy there to Spider's lively mind.

     Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity. Yet another heralded prizewinner from Sundance (the filmmaker is Arthur Miller's daughter) which is a total loser: tales of woe about young women (Parker Posey doing her urbane shtick, Kara Sedgwick doing a blue-collar thing, subpar Erin Brokovitch) and with winsome, sticky, John Irving-type, voiceover.

     Claire Denis' Friday Night. A no-plot mood piece taking place during an elongated evening rush hour in Paris: cars hardly move (that's the first act), a woman driver picks up a handsome pedestrian, and eventually they are in a hotel making love. That's all, not enough to sustain a movie.

     What was good? Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her, a tender, kooky romance between a beautiful young dancer in a coma and the mama's boy hairdresser who watches over her.

     Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar, with the great Samantha Morton as a blue-collar gal on the run through Spain, faking she's the author of a novel written by her suicided boyfriend. Another triumph from the talented Scotch director of Ratcatcher.

     Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven, a brilliantly conceptual rewrite of the 1950s Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind) but with two differences: this Eisenhower era movie includes a closeted gay husband coming out (Dennis Quaid) and an interracial romance (Julianne Moore, Dennis Haysbert), both no-no's in the last days of the studio system. Haynes's film won deserved awards at Venice for Best Actress (Moore) and Best Cinematography (Ed Lachman). But the film is worth it just for Haynes's pulpish recreation of a 1950s gay bar.

(Boston Phoenix - October 2002)


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